As a songwriter, you always run the risk of repeating yourself, particularly if you’re lucky enough to have had a long and successful career. You have a finite number of notes and chords at your disposal, and there are only a certain number of ways that these will sound easy on the ear when put together.
This is particularly true if you’re working in the pop genre; for years, artists have leant on the same chord progressions to write hit records, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that when pianist David Bennett went through Taylor Swift’s back catalogue, he discovered that she’s used a small number of the same diatonic progressions many times over.
In fact, based on his research, Bennett has drawn up a list of what he’s concluded are Taylor Swift’s 5 favourite chord progressions, illustrating their repeated use with some nice audio mash-ups.
We start with ‘IV I V vi’ and ‘vi IV I V’, both of which she’s used nine times throughout her career. Next, we come to ‘I vi IV V’, a pop classic that Swift has returned to 17 times, while at number two on the list we have ‘I V ii IV’, which Bennett refers to as ‘the Believe progression’ in reference to the Cher song of that name. Our favourite Anti-Hero has called on that one 20 times.
Which brings us to our number one - the classic ‘I V vi IV’ progression, which has formed the basis of 21 of Taylor Swift’s songs (and, it should be noted, countless songs by other artists, too).
All of which tells us… well, what exactly? To be fair to Bennett, there’s no snark involved here. As he points out, there are whole genres based on just one chord progression - we’re looking at you, blues - so to criticise Swift for finding something that works for her and her fanbase woud be pretty churlish.
What’s more, you could argue that part of Swift’s songwriting skill is her ability to create something that sounds reassuringly familiar but also just different enough to feel new. And that’s before we even start discussing melodies and her talents as a lyricist.
You can check out David Bennett’s video above and find more of his content over on his YouTube channel.